Austin Berg: Could this court be future of criminal justice?

Austin Berg: Could this court be future of criminal justice?


Kid steals something. Kid gets arrested. Kid goes to court. Kid goes to jail. That's a typical storyboard when it comes to criminal justice.

Notice anything missing? The victim.

Too often, he or she plays a frustratingly small role in criminal justice proceedings. But a new court model that's seen success in states such as Texas and Colorado attempts to bridge that gap. It's called restorative justice.

And it's coming to Illinois.

The West Side Chicago neighborhood of North Lawndale will play host to the Land of Lincoln's first step into the world of restorative justice. The Restorative Justice Community Court will host face-to-face meetings between nonviolent offenders and their victims, with a judge overseeing the proceedings, aiming at better outcomes for both sides.

Sustained success means the model could spread across the state and save serious taxpayer dollars to boot.

Here's how it works:

An eligible offender must be between 18 and 26 years old. He has to have no violent criminal history. And he has to live in the area, too. If he's charged with a nonviolent crime — say, stealing a neighbor's property — both the victim and the offender must agree to participate.

That's when the wheels of justice begin to turn.

If a neighbor's kid steals their laptop, many Illinoisans wouldn't want to see the rest of that young person's life hindered by the scarlet letter of a criminal record. They'd rather have their laptop back, an assurance it won't happen again, and some help with the wobbly step on their back porch.

Restorative justice models allow this type of arrangement in deciding a punishment that fits the crime, honoring the will of the victim while demanding accountability from the offender.

One of the most important parts of the restorative justice model is that the voluntary arrangements between victim and offender can be an alternative to prison time. That's important. Especially in Illinois.

Incarceration isn't free. And the outcomes speak for themselves.

The Illinois Department of Corrections pays nearly $22,000 in direct costs per inmate. If you add up employee health care, benefits, pensions and capital expenses, the cost per inmate is nearly $40,000.

Restorative justice could potentially save the state $1,561 per participant when compared to prison sentences, according to Illinois Policy Institute research.

Not only is incarceration expensive, but it's rarely a long-term solution. Ninety-seven percent of those under supervision in Illinois prisons will eventually be released to return to their families, workplaces and communities.

But half the time, they're back behind bars in the blink of an eye. Nearly 50 percent of Illinois' ex-offenders are incarcerated again within three years. That means the system is producing poor outcomes. And that failure is expensive.

Each instance of recidivism in Illinois costs, on average, approximately $118,746, including costs borne by taxpayers and victims, according to a report by the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council. Those concerned with these costs should take a look at Texas, where recidivism rates from participants in the Lone Star State's restorative justice programs have been a fraction of the national average.

Programs like restorative justice courts could be crucial to Illinois' success in reforming its criminal justice system.

Along with other alternative sentencing methods such as drug court and mental health court — which are already producing hundreds of success stories across the state every year — restorative justice has the power to transform attitudes, improve public safety and save money.

North Lawndale, your fellow Illinoisans are watching.

Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. His email is

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